Searching Recreational Vehicles During
Fire Incidents in Industrial Areas
Many jurisdictions have an area that contains heavy commercial or light industrial occupancies that is commonly called an “industrial park” or “business park”. Often times these areas have buildings with large square footages and outdoor storage and loading areas. The outdoor storage areas can be of particular concern to firefighters as they can be neat and orderly or one step above the local junk-yard. It can also be the storage area for the business owner’s personal toys. Boats, cars, RV’s and even aircraft have been found in storage lots of operating businesses. This article deals with one particular potential concern for firefighters responding to a fire incident in the local industrial area and one that is very frequently overlooked. The RV fire.
Many firefighters may have driven past RV’s or camper trailers in their industrial area many times and never given them a second-thought. Obviously many businesses could be either dealing in the sales and service of RV’s and trailers or simply outdoor storage for rent, so the presence of an RV would not seem so out of place. Sometimes simply looking at the name of the business can provide you with enough information to help you determine if an RV would be out of place or not. If it would seem as though an RV may not have a good reason for being there it should warrant further investigation, especially if it is involved in a fire event.
While many business owners do use their buildings as free storage areas sometimes there are other reasons for mobile home units being present. Given todays economy it is not unusual to find people looking for alternative means of housing. And that usually means cheap. If an employee can work out a deal with his employer where he or she can live rent-free on the business property in exchange for some extra duties (like being the local key holder when the fire department responds for the automatic fire alarm at 2 A.M.) or some kind of other arrangement, it is entirely feasible to have someone living in the RV that is sitting in the back lot of the local tool and die business.
If your jurisdiction includes camp grounds or trailer parks you may already be well versed at handling RV fires and may treat them very similarly to a small residential structure fire. For those of us that do not respond to these types of fires on a regular basis they tend to be treated as vehicle fires and the mobile home aspect is forgotten about. Throw in a location where no one is expected to be regularly living and the thought of a life safety issue while arriving on scene of an RV fire in an industrial area may be the farthest thing from the first-arriving officer’s mind. There may be several clues that he or she can look for that would indicate an aggressive primary search may be indicated.
Electric cords- Extension cords running from the business to the mobile home should be a strong indicator that it is being used for something and may not simply be being stored on the property. More elaborate wiring hook-ups may be present as well, such as illegal jumps from the local power grid or portable generators.
Garden hoses- Depending on the size of the RV a garden hose may supply water for a bathroom, sink or even a dishwasher. The presence of one running from a nearby building to an RV should spur a high-degree of suspicion.
Outdoor furniture- If you encounter outdoor furniture such as lawn chairs and tables or grills outside the mobile home and they seem to be arranged in a way that seems like they are being used and not just randomly placed or stored, it should also indicate that a search may be warranted.
Steps/Awnings- Although it may not be a strong indicator that someone is living in an RV located in an industrial storage lot if the access steps are found in the down positions or if awnings are found deployed it may indicate the presence of someone using the RV for shelter.
Time/Day- Some businesses run 18 or more hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week. Most, especially in the economy today, do not. If the day of the week and the time of day just do not seem right to have a “vehicle” fire in an otherwise closed-down industrial area, the level of suspicion should be raised.
As with any fire incident the faster the fire is extinguished the better the end-result typically is. The responding crew must make an early decision as to whether or not to commit to an aggressive interior search taking into consideration the extent and location of the fire. With RV fires, as is the case with trailer home fires, there is a heavy fuel-load in the interior furnishings and little to protect the occupants. There may be a total lack of smoke detectors, no drywall is present for fire resistance, there are no heavier doors to provide fire separation, windows are typically fairly small and may not be able to be opened fully to allow escape, and there may only be one exterior door. All of these factors, on top of the fact that the vehicle has gasoline, perhaps propane tanks, oil, rubber and plastics in the vehicle itself, leaves little time for the occupant to escape or to be rescued in the event of a fire. The officer must weigh the man power available, getting the first line in service and searching the RV quickly.
While this article is certainly not earth-shattering and does not contain any new information or techniques it hopefully serves to help firefighters think of our primary mission of life safety during a run that may initially seem to have a low risk of death or serious injury. The next time you are driving through your local industrial area keep your eyes open not only for the typical difficulties that manufacturing and commercial occupancies can face us with but also for those challenges that you might not expect to be there. RV’s may only be one of the more obvious places for people to seek alternative means of shelter. Boats with cabins have many of the same amenities as RV’s and are equally popular to be stored in the yards of industrial areas. But maybe that’s a future article.